Wilfred Owen on “Militarian Subjects”–or Not; Olaf Stapledon Can’t Forget That There Are Trenches in the World

Wilfred Owen‘s letter of today, a century back, begins in a rather precious mode of poetic reverie but then quickly subsides back toward the plane of daily life. First, he tells his mother of plans to visit the school with which had been very involved during his “ergotherapy” at Edinburgh. This is a happy subject–a remembrance of good times, the pleasure and fulfillment he felt in teaching and in the admiration of the boys for the young officer come to instruct them. But while the mood stays jaunty–it almost always does, in these letters–the thread leads straight back to war. There is a shadow, even in a breezy letter from this sunny, undecorated, unheralded “major domo,” of the substance of Sassoon‘s protest–and of Owen’s determination (which may make his mother profoundly uncomfortable) to treat the suffering of the soldiers in Christian terms.

13 December 1917, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

It is the quarter of an hour after lunch. The coffee has given me satisfaction and everybody else. (I serve coffee after lunch as well as dinner.) So I sit in the middle of my five-windowed turret, and look down upon the sea. The sun is valiant in its old age. I draw the Venetian blinds, so that the shadow of the lattices on the table gives an illusion of great heat…

Yesterday I was sent the Tynecastle School Magazine, very amusing. Mrs. Fullerton writes again this morning, reminding me how I promised to go up there for my first leave.

‘You can imagine our welcome better than I can write’ they say. Now, I find that Leave from Friday Night to Monday Night is granted every month! But Mrs. Fullerton is leaving the school for ever on the 21st. in order to be with her husband who will soon get sent out again.

There is much talk of Education for the ‘A 4’s’ of the Battalion, that is the tender younglings. I have been ‘approached’ on the subject, but I shall not consent to lecture on Militarian subjects. The scheme either comes of a desperate feeling that the race is going to perdition intellectually or else it is a Jesuitical movement to catch ’em young, & prepare them for the Eucharist of their own blood.

Dearest love from W.E.O.[1]

 

Interestingly, our other letter today is from Olaf Stapledon, the young pacifist whose entire war service has been a protest, as well as a “sacrifice” in the looser sense of something given (at great length and effort) where it might have been (selfishly) withheld. Stapledon, home on leave–in Merseyside, just across the island from Scarborough–is stewing, disgusted with the complacency and luxury which persist.

Stapledon and Owen are very different men in very different positions, but it’s tempting to consider some sort of equivalency. Stapledon, despite a period of crisis about the rights and wrongs of serving as an ambulance man (rather than as either a soldier or a pacifist abstainer, ready for the other martyrdom of prison and social ignominy) has been shielded from the full misery of the war: he has not had to fight, or sit for many hours under enemy shelling. He has been in danger and he has seen terrible things, but nothing so terrible as a long, muddy tour in front-line trenches. So is he, in late 1917, only now approaching the mild level of disgust of a 1915 or early 1916 infantryman, while Owen has gone through all that in a few short weeks at the front (and a few long months recovering) and moved beyond it, to happy forgetfulness pottering about in a base job, picking out furniture, visiting old friends, and not thinking about what comes next?

Tempting–but I should have resisted. What’s the point, after all, of a strict timeline (i.e. the whole war, day by day) if I don’t resist the temptation to validate it by twisting it in different directions? Suffice it to say that today, a century back, Stapledon–who has never doubted that fighting the war is wrong–is wondering about who and what those who are fighting are fighting for. Are those for whom the sacrifices are allegedly being made worthy of them? The logical next step is to question, again, whether taking any action that enables the continuation of the war is morally justifiable.

Annery

13 December 1917

. . . I am all adrift, all sixes and sevens and so bored, bored to tears with the war and my own stodgy self. This leave has been somehow unreal. It has largely consisted in going round talking platitudes to people about the war, and in slipping back comfortably into the artificial life that we all lead at home in our most excessive middle class luxury. Plates & dishes & knives & forks & furniture beyond the wildest need, & all so beautifully clean. Fires, hot baths, dainty food–& yet there are trenches in the world.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 516.
  2. Talking Across the World, 260.

Wilfrid Ewart in Bourlon Wood: What They Asked Us to Do Was Impossible; Doctor Rivers in Another Doctor’s Hell

The Battle of Cambrai has seen an unprecedented advance, a failure to break through, and stiff German resistance in another torn and terrible wood. The Guards have been called in, now–on both sides.

Although Cambrai is one of the few battles not to feature in his novel Way of Revelation, it provided the most harrowing moments of Wilfrid Ewart‘s war experience. At first light, three companies of the First Scots Guards were ordered to clear Bourlon Wood.

This of course was sheer open fighting, and quite different than anything we had done before except on field days.

But it didn’t last long. Machine guns pinned down one flank of the assault, and after several hours of stationary fighting it became clear that the British were outnumbered, and the attackers withdrew.

Then orders came up that they must try again, at two o’clock.

This was at 1.15, so there was not much time to arrange it, and I had the wind up as never before, feeling certain that it was impossible to take the place owing to the machine-guns which were supposed to be rushed with the bayonet…

It is now, I think, that the poor planning of the Cambrai offensive–the first few hours markedly improved in conception and execution, the rest abandoned to foolish hopes–becomes most clear.

There was a short and quite useless machine-gun barrage, no artillery. Just after we had gone over, Tyringham tried to stop us, as the Command realized the hopelessness of it, but it was then too late.

One company was “laid out together trying to rush the machine-guns.” The two guns then turn on Ewart and two men, out in front of his platoon, only fifteen yards away. They throw themselves down behind “a young oak-tree.”

The machine-gun fired absolutely point blank, but could not quite reach us on account of the tree… two Lewis Gunners… kept firing for all they were worth…working their guns in the open until they were killed. Every man was killed one after the other…

By this Ewart probably means every man among the Lewis gunners and their support teams. He is pinned down between the Germans and his men, watching the one kill the other, helpless. Some of his platoon are able to withdraw, it seems, but the Germans now begin throwing phosphorous grenades among the wounded, “which set light to them and burnt them up.”

Ewart and the two men are soon alone, and make a desperate retreat, crawling for the rear. One makes it, then the next is hit heavily (he will die of his wound). Ewart goes last.

I waited about five minutes and then did a lightning sprint on my stomach, and by all natural laws ought to have been hit–the bullets were knocking stones up into my face… It was an experience I shall never wish to repeat… what they asked us to do was impossible.[1]

The First Scots Guards were relieved that night, and due for a longer rest; but their Battle of Cambrai was not yet over.

 

So goes the latest of the war’s bloody battles. But what of those who have survived the earlier battles, their bodies undestroyed and yet not intact?

A good deal of the literature of the war has focused on the question of psychological trauma–“shell-shock”–and how it was diagnosed, treated, experienced, remembered, and written. We have, first and foremost, the poetry of the surviving soldiers who struggled with “shell shock” or post-combat “neurasthenia.” These are the most primary of sources, of course, but “shell shock”–with its dramatic traumas, unstable psyches, and uncertain social reception–calls out for third party treatment, as it were. The novel remains one of the best tools we have for exploring the human mind, and especially for depicting the attempt of one mind to reach another, over particularly terrible gulfs of experience. One series of such attempts, mediated through the mind of Dr. Rivers, becomes the central subject of Pat Barker’s incomparable Regeneration trilogy.

Readers of this project may remember that Dr. Rivers–pioneering neurologist, skilled and sensitive therapist, and father-figure-hero to Siegfried Sassoon–is currently on leave in London after a staff dust-up at Craiglockhart, and working on an academic paper about his work with “war neuroses.” Today, a century back (in the novel, at least), he takes the cruelest sort of busman’s holiday, going to the National Hospital to observe the methods of of Dr. Lewis Yealland, who has boasted of a 100% cure rate for cases of hysterical war neurosis. Readers of Regeneration will certainly remember this scene–it’s awful. Yealland is the villain of the piece, but as far as I can tell it (not far at all! caveat!) Barker represents his methods more or less accurately. Yealland takes patients who have been shocked/traumatized into mutism or who exhibit physical contortions that cannot be explained by physical injuries and he shocks them–literally–back into health.

Yealland believes, as most men once did, that such symptoms are merely the result of a failure of nerve–of a sort of hysterical cowardice rather than damage that has been done to honorable and healthy human beings. So, armored with contempt–Barker portrays him as so thorough a bully that he has no idea he is, in fact, torturing war victims–Yealland uses physical pain and pressure, including electrical shocks and even cigarette burns to force men to speak or unbend their twisted limbs.

It works: they walk again, and speak; they even go back to war.

Enough summary–if this sounds bearable, then read the book. You will come to see the scene–once its horrors are half-forgotten–as a clever piece of fiction, and a major step toward what becomes the most important theme of the trilogy. Not Sassoon’s growth or the renunciation of his protest, but Rivers’ journey from mere saint to fellow martyr: he becomes a witness to the harrowing of the lost generation, one of the few older men in Britain who, through their proximity to the minds of traumatized men, sufferer the war themselves.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Scots Guard, 148-9.
  2. See Regeneration, 223-35.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Rowland Feilding’s Circuitous Identification; A Reprieve and a Safe Delivery for the Family Tolkien; Wilfred Owen Comes Out with a Key, and Sends “Asleep.”

Just three short notes today from (or about) three of our officers–but one gives a good excuse for us to read a poem.

The shortest comes from Rowland Feilding, who is impressively true to his commitment to tell his wife everything–horrors and fears included. But that doesn’t preclude a bit of light comedy, when such a thing presents itself.

November 16, 1917

One of my officers, in censoring his men’s letters a day or two ago, came upon the following:

“Dear Brother,–

I can’t tell you where I am, but I am at the place which I’ve left to go to the place where I’ve come from.”

I think that should baffle the censor, don’t you?[1]

 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had rather a heavier day, today, a century back, but with greater joys at the end of it.

The scheduled family medical event was another Board, which determined that his recovery from his latest bout with fever has been too slow. Tolkien was declared “20 per cent disabled,” a ruling which would have come to him as the lifting of a great weight: this classification made it very unlikely that he would ever face enemy fire again. Tolkien was sent back to the Lancashire Fusiliers depot at Thirtle Bridge, for at least two months more of “home service” before his next assessment.

And on returning to base he learned that his wife Edith had gone into labor in a Cheltenham nursing home. It will be a difficult delivery, and there are fears for her life, but Tolkien was unable to get leave to see her. It must have been a terrible day, for any husband and prospective father, but especially for one so fiercely committed to the romantic ideal of marriage.

And it ended happily: John Francis Reuel Tolkien will be born, healthy and strong, and his mother will make a relatively swift recovery.[2]

 

And finally, today, an unusually revealing–and predictably obscured–letter from Wilfred Owen. He has just spent several days visiting with his cousin Leslie Gunston, his closest friend and poetic fellow-dreamer in earlier years. But Owen had moved beyond his old friend and kinsman, and there was a new distance between the two. It’s not just that Gunston writes hackneyed verse while Owen has begun writing powerful poetry, and it’s not just his fancy new London friends. It also seems to have something to do with new honesty: emboldened by his friendship with Sassoon and Robbie Ross, Owen  seems to have made his sexual preferences clear to his cousin for the first time.

My dear Leslie,

I did not think to send back a driblet of your Ink so soon, but I have indeed carried off the key.

Had it been the key of my box I should surely have left it with you. As it was I left you the key to many of my poems, which you will guard from rust or soilure. . .

At this point the censorious editors of his letters cut in, omitting twenty-two words. It seems very likely that these announced Owen’s homosexuality as the “key” to his early poems, the love lyrics which he and Gunston would often write as parallel exercises. To “come out” even in so roundabout a fashion was courageous, and Owen must have trusted his friend and cousin, for the letter continues on as if their continued easy fellowship will not be affected by the news.

Good of you to send me the Lyric of Nov. 14th. I can only send my own of the same date, which came from Winchester Downs, as I crossed the long backs of the downs after leaving you. It is written as from the trenches. I could almost see the dead lying about in the hollows of the downs…

your W.E.O.[3]

Owen also gamely and loyally informs Gunston that he asked Harold Munro about Gunston’s rather awful The Nymph–although of course he could be fibbing. Even so, he does not mention doing anything specific to get The Nymph into the Poetry Bookshop, where after all it wouldn’t belong.

But if Gunston doesn’t realize how far Owen’s poetry has moved beyond their joint adolescent imitations, then perhaps he will be happy to receive drafts from his successful cousin, rather than chagrined that they are of such a different quality than his own productions…

In any event, the poem is called “Asleep,” and although it is nothing of Owen’s strongest and has quite a bit of the young man’s lyricism that drenched his pre-Sassoon work (although perhaps the erotic element will now be clear, for the first time, to the “key”-possessing Gunston), it is still the work of a veteran and a fast-developing poet:

 

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars,
Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225.
  2. Chronology, 102; I'm not completely sure if young Tolkien was actually born today or tomorrow, a century back.
  3. Collected Letters, 507-8. The censor is Owen's brother Harold, who ruthlessly but incompetently suppressed information about his brother's sexuality

Herbert Read Has a Perfect Moment; Charles Montague Approves a Failure to Hate, Duff Cooper Drills His Men

Just three brief notes today, a century back, in the few days’ breathing space between Passchendaele and Cambrai. First, Herbert Read, writing to Evelyn Roff, gives us a glimpse of what letters mean to the serving soldier–and also fine days, and respites after hard duty in the lines.

Today the post arrived just as Col and I were off for a ride. We read out letters–he had one of the right kind too–as we ambled along in the winter sunlight. Then we both laughed gladly and vowed we had never known such a perfect moment.

We are out of the line again, after another terrible week. We hope never to see this sector again. Expect to go back for a few weeks rest any day now. Then I will write to you. I feel too unsettled now–my present home a tent in an ocean of mud. I fear I was rather a dull fellow in my last letter[1]

 

Charles Montague, still working as a professional propagandist, sees what he has always seen, and will come to champion: the fact that the fighters failed to hate their enemy as much as some of their home-front compatriots… and will direct their ire elsewhere when they can. But this letter to his wife still frames the war in the old style, in which “honor” is valued and sport seems like a good analog; resistance or disillusion are not yet framed as such.

Nov. 14, 1917

Of the spirit of hatred and revenge there is quite extraordinarily little among soldiers who do the actual fighting—much less than among some foolish journalists who try to relieve their feelings that way. It seems a regular instinct among our men to make almost a pet of a German, once he has surrendered; they seem to regard him rather like a lost dog. After the war I believe there will be less ill-will against Germans in general among our returning soldiers than among any other equal number of men at home, just because hard fighting, man against man, tends to let off bitterness and make you regard your opponent as a kind of other side in an athletic contest. In intervals in some of our recent battles there have been quite exemplary spectacles of honourable fighting—stretcher-bearers of both sides, out in No Man’s Land in crowds, sorting out their respective wounded, and nobody firing a shot at them.[2]

 

Duff Cooper is yet to experience the killing, the oceans of mud, the hatred or its lack, the mercy or mercilessness… but he’s getting closer. Newly commissioned, he now has to actually lead men…

November 14, 1917 [Wellington Barracks]

My first day on the square. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. It was only a half day being Wednesday and we got off at eleven. Edward [Horner] has suddenly been recalled to France. He had leave till Saturday but had to go back at once.[3]

Since the experience of Duff Cooper and his beloved Diana Manning has been more or less completely defined by the suffering and death of close friends, it is only appropriate that this ominous news about Horner accompanies his belated milestone on the drill square…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience, 114.
  2. C.E.Montague, 197-198.
  3. Diaries, 60.

Olaf Stapledon Goes to Mass; Rowland Feilding Praises Courage Under Fire

There is a special pathos in following the conversation of Olaf Stapeldon and Agnes Miller, separated as it is by half the world, the long weeks it takes letters to traverse the distance, and the vagaries of wartime mail. Agnes has been having her doubts, recently, that their love can survive the long loneliness, but Olaf hasn’t learned of them yet. And before he does, her doubts have turned back to questions, which he will then have to answer.

It’s been hard (of course!) being separated for long years, with only letters to sustain them. And when Agnes sees young men going off to fight–or bright, brave young men like Olaf taking high-status roles as officers–her faith in his faith that a pacifist’s place is in the hard, humble duty of the Ambulance Corps wavers.

You see, conscription did not come here, so there was no need for him to go to prison. But just put yourself in his place in a free country like Australia. You need not go to war & you need not go to prison, but I don’t think you would be content if you lived here to go on with your daily work just as usual. I think you would have been drawn away to do Red Cross or relief work just as you have been doing. Would you not? If so I think you must be right in being there now. If you would not have gone, do you think it would have been more worthwhile to stick to your own work or to have joined the English C.O.s in their protest? Which?

This is a difficult hypothetical, and we must point out on Olaf’s behalf that he never had to make such a choice because he committed to the Friends’ Ambulance Unit long before conscription came to England, when his old classmates were joining the army in droves. And he has thought all this through, carefully, too…

But the conversation is months in arrears, and Olaf’s letter of the same day, a century back, is a colorful slice-of-life letter. And yet, like any wartime letter, it can hardly fail to address these questions of duty, suffering, principle, and motivation.

6 November 1917

It is a foggy, muddy November Sunday, and in our great rugger match this afternoon we shall get well plastered. These matches are a great institution; they give us something to talk about for a fortnight before the event and a fortnight afterwards. We discuss rugger as seriously as if it was the war. We estimate people’s respective merits. We tragically whisper that so and so is no use, you know.” We exclaim, with eyes round with adoration, that so and so is glorious. We rearrange the whole program of our work so as to enable The Team to be all off duty on the Day. In fact it is just like school…

Stapledon then tells us about a recent service at the local church. There is some condescension, here, from the well-bred English Quaker, about the ceremonies of rural French Catholicism… but as always with Stapledon, sympathy trumps whatever stiffness holds him back, and he is drawn in:

The other day was the French “Jour des Morts.” Some of us dressed up and went to church to represent the convoy. It was a little old church… packed with pale blue soldiers, and in the background were about four women in deep black. The service began in the ordinary way, and seemed lamentably unreal, insincere. The priest muttered and rang bells and waved his hands & did genuflexions, the intoning was very bad. Then came a solemn solo on some sort of hautbois, rather an improvement. Then, after more scampered chants, the band in the gallery began playing some fine stately piece or other. We all sat and listened and were rather strung up by it. Then came the sermon, a rather oratorical affair, and yet somehow sincere. He spoke very clearly, slowly, and with much gesture. He pictured the supreme sacrifice of Christ, the similar sacrifice of any man who dies avec les armes a la main, en se battant pour la France [in arms, fighting for France], or words to that effect. He described sympathetically the mud & misery of the trenches; and then urged men, if they ever felt inclined to give up the struggle, to remember devastated France who needed their help. He pictured the souls of the glorious dead enjoying heaven. And his last words were a moving summary of all the sufferings of France since the war began…

One felt as if the little church were some ship in a great storm, sweeping toward a fierce coast. One felt that the blue mariners, instead of pulling at ropes and sailing the ship, were praying to imaginary gods of the tempest. I don’t know. It was somehow terrible. One felt the awful fatal power of the world, and the littleness of men. Finally the band played Chopin’s dead march as people slowly moved out with wreaths for their friends’ graves. That nearly reduced some of us to tears, very much against our will. I can’t explain. There was something more than the obvious tragedy of human death about it, though indeed that is more than enough in itself, our blue soldiers, with their short-cropped black hair, and their matter-of-fact French faces. They had such a strange shamefaced way of crossing themselves, rather as if they suspected it was a foolish superstition but were determined to be on the safe side. They had seen hell all right but they did not know at all what heaven is…[1]

 

The only other piece today is almost a flash-forward. Rowland Feilding is neither a dreamer nor a pacifist, but he is, in another sense, what Olaf Stapledon hopes to be, namely an older married man, doing his duty, and keeping his beloved wife Edith as close as he can. Feilding has done more than any of our writers to hold to the plan of writing scrupulously honest and open letters to his wife, sparing her nothing.

But today there is a painful reversal, a vertigo at the edge of the experiential gulf: Feilding is safe in reserve, and his wife and children are in danger, in London. It’s a short letter, but it packs in love, a sort of befuddled proto-feminism, and the awkward tone of a husband/commander exhorting and commending his wife/subordinate from far away, in relative safety.[2]

I got your letter to-day, describing the air-raid, which interested me enormously and filled me with pride to think of you all joking at the bottom of the kitchen stairs.

I cannot tell you how much I admire the way in which you have handled this problem, forcing the children to look upon the air-raids as a game. It is splendid. The others will inevitably take their cue from you. Had you been a man you would have made an ideal soldier. Above all, I admire the way in which you have never woken the children till, in your opinion, the danger has become imminent. You are becoming a veteran now, and I have every faith in your leadership, and that it will carry you and the household through…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 254-6. Of all things--and allowing for the ten thousand miles separating the lovers--this scene recalls (or anticipates, rather) the Advent Evensong scene in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
  2. He is probably not in "relative" safety; London was a big place and the raids did not kill very many compared to the constant bombardment even on quiet sectors of the rear areas in France and Belgium. Nevertheless, the thought that on some nights, at least, his family is in danger and he is not is strange and destabilizing...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 223-4.

Wilfred Owen is Almost Ready to Leave; Siegfried Sassoon Fights to the Finish; Frederic Manning is Simply Finished

Frederic Manning‘s battle against alcoholism–although perhaps his “fighting retreat in the face of overwhelming alcoholism” would be a better metaphor–ended in defeat today, a century back. Manning’s C.O., Major Milner, “obviously hoping to save his subordinate from further embarrassment while allowing the army its due,” let Manning attempt the fig-leaf gesture of quitting before being fired.

2nd Lieut. Manning has submitted his resignation and if this is to be accepted I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by again trying this officer.

2nd Lieut. Manning is a gentleman but apparently has no strength of will and is quite unsuitable as an officer.

This was kind, considering the circumstances, but there was no way around the M.O.’s report: “This officer is in a stupor, quite unfit for any duty evidently the result of a drinking bout.” Even if some honor is salvaged, it’s clearly the end of Manning’s military career.[1]

The more relevant question, perhaps, for Manning, was “and what next?” He’s out of a commission, but not free from conscription. It seems likely that Milner’s sympathy might save Manning more than mere pride, namely by making it more likely that he will be swept aside as a broken man best left in a backwater rather than sent directly back into combat–a private soldier once more–by way of punishment for his failures as an officer.

 

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon is fighting his own losing campaign to avoid seeing Lady Ottoline Morrell face to face before he faces his next Medical Board, at which he plans to conditionally abandon his allegiance to her cause.

My dear Ottoline, It would be jolly to see you but it seems a terrible long way for you to come, especially If you are rather broke, as I gather you and Philip generally are! However, if you decide to come, let me know what time you arrive.

I can’t see any way out of it except in France. Nothing definite has been heard from the War Office. They are very fed up with me here, as I was supposed to attend a Board last Tuesday, and didn’t go.

At least, today, he’s faced up to this and told Lady Ottoline about his erratic behavior. At least this helps to demonstrate, in a way, that he has been not so much erratic as consistently bifurcated (in an earlier era we would have lightly said “schizophrenic”) about his feelings on the war. He has reacted to the news of the Étaples mutiny and the role of the First Royal Welch in quelling it by writing another of his lacerating pro-troop, anti-leader poems.

Rivers thinks my ‘Fight to a Finish’ poem in the Cambridge Magazine very dangerous…

 

Fight to a Finish

The boys came back. Bands played and flags were flying,
And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlit street
To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying.
And hear the music of returning feet.
‘Of all the thrills and ardours War has brought.
This moment is the finest.’ (So they thought.)

Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob.
Grim Fusiliers broke ranks with glint of steel.
At last the boys had found a cushy job.

I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament.[2]

 

This really should almost be dangerous–in wartime, with no great freedom of speech permitted, he has once again written a fantasy in which the violence of the front lines is visited on the hypocrites at home. This time, however, it’s not a third-person wish, involving the impersonal violence of a newfangled tank. This time it’s Mad Jack himself who wants to lead his favored men, his crack bombing team, on a raid on his own national legislature.

I wonder how much confidence Rivers has that this make-up Medical Board next month will go well?

 

If Wilfred Owen knows anything of his friend’s state of mind, he still probably wouldn’t mention it in a letter home to his mother, to whom he famously tells most things… but not all. Naturally, his thoughts turn to his own Medical Board, and what it might mean for him.

Monday

It seems really likely that I shall be evacuated on Tuesday. Some time ago the Grays made me promise to stay 2 or 3 days with them before leaving Edinburgh. I am going there this afternoon, & if they ask me again, I may stay one day in order to get my picture done. Sassoon is anxious for me to spend a day or two of my 3 weeks with some people at a Manor near Oxford.

Ah, now there is another aspect of his new friendship that Owen is keeping from his mother. The manor in question is Garsington Manor, home of Phillip and Lady Ottoline Morrell.

I have not made up my mind. We went to the Astronomer’s yesterday, & saw the moon.

I wonder how I shall find you all. I shall be in a desperate excited state when I arrive…

But not so desperate as to make a beeline:

So, then, I may turn up on Tues. Night, or Wednesday Morning, or any day until Sat., for I want to stay on here a few days (if it won’t shorten the 3 weeks) to be able to return all my borrowed books, & make a graceful exit from  these scenes.

W.E.O. [3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.
  2. Diaries, 193-4.
  3. Collected Letters, 504.

Ivor Gurney in a Nutshell; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Eat, Drink, and Mock Merrily; Herbert Read the Very Model of the Modernist Company Commander

A day, today, of striking contrasts. First, Marion Scott seems to have asked Ivor Gurney for some biographical details, presumably for some task related to the publication of his Severn and Somme, which she has single-handedly seen into the press. He responded with a charmingly inexact potted bio:

26 October 1917

Details of the Life and Crimes of the private named Gurney.

Gloucester Cathedral 1900…

Head boy sometime

I have forgotten when I got the Scholarship (I have asked Mrs Hunt to tell you.)
Stanford — Composition
Mr Waddington (whom I like very much) for Counterpoint…

Also the Westminster Board.

Mr Sharpe (a good man) for Piano…

Centre-forward for Kings School

Owner of the “Dorothy” (defunct)

2nd best batting average
3rd best bowling — last term of school

crack platoon shot July 1917

Author of “Severn and Somme”
and a further unborn imbecility.

Army Feb. 9th (?) 1915

Proficiency pay. C[onfined to].B[arracks]. every now and then. Sang Widdecombe Fair
blushingly at Albert Nov: 1916

Wounded Good Friday night — or rather on the Sat:
Gassed (?) at Ypres.[1]

 

A few miles away in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spent the day together. It was something of a last hurrah,[2] since Owen’s Medical Board–not to mention Sassoon’s make-up Board–is looming on the horizon. But it was a low-key last hurrah, centered on two things dear to combat soldiers: food and laughter. Owen will write, tomorrow:

I am so happy with Sassoon. Spent all day with him yesterday. Breakfast, Lunch, Tea & Dinner, chiefly at the Conservative Club…[3]

Sassoon provided the chief amusement:

After a good dinner and a bottle of noble Burgundy had put us in good spirits, I produced a volume of portentously over-elaborate verse, recently sent me by the author. From this I began to read extracts—a cursory inspection having assured me that he would find them amusing.

The extracts included bizarrely eccentric lines such as

When Captain Cook first sniff’d the wattle
And love Columbus’d Aristotle…

Which left Owen “surrendering to convulsions of mirth in a large leather-covered armchair.” Before joining Owen in this surrender, Sassoon managed to get as far as:

What cassock’d misanthrope
Hawking peace-canticles for glory-gain,
Hymns from his rostrum’d height th’epopt of Hate?

O is it true I have become
This gourd, this gothic vacuum?[4]

Very bad poetry is funny, it’s true…

 

Herbert Read, however, is a serious-minded Modernist, and, in today’s letter to Evelyn Roff, he writes… well, perhaps from the heart, perhaps to impress, perhaps some of both. But he certainly becomes the first poet here to quote an abstract contemporary poem in lieu of describing what his latest tour in the line was like–in lieu of Dante, Bunyan,  or the Bible. It’s also, for us, a remote crossing of paths: the poem he quotes–almost accurately–is by the important Modernist H.D., wife of Richard Aldington (and current hostess of D.H. Lawrence).

We have had a terrible time–the worst I have ever experienced (and I’m getting quite an old soldier now). Life has never seemed quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated. I won’t paint the horrors to you. Some day I think I will, generally and for the public benefit.

This casual-but-major statement of intent, with Read’s habitual mix of studied rationality stretched thin over his ambition, is especially noteworthy if we follow his train of thought. It makes very good sense, of course, to go from horror to the hope of writing to the question of what writing the war might accomplish… which would be some sort of attempt to bridge–or at least signal across–the yawning gulf that separates combat veterans from civilians. Very good sense: but I feel as if we don’t often see these two thoughts nakedly next to each other, and in this order. Sassoon feels the gulf and then writes in anger and in ways which are neither didactic nor conciliatory; Read wants to write, and then thinks of the gulf…

I was thoroughly ‘fed up’ with the attitude of most of the people I met on leave–especially the Londoners. They simply have no conception whatever of what war is really like and don’t seem concerned about it at all. They are much more troubled about a few paltry air raids. They raise a sentimental scream about one or two babies killed when every day out here hundreds of the very finest manhood ‘go west’.

…and then he comes back to the anger. This we saw as long ago as 1915, but it is getting worse.

And yet Read pulls up short again, and turns, doing an unusual sort of somersault back over the gulf. He will describe war, but he will use the words of a civilian and a woman–a woman moreover in a position analogous to the letter’s addressee: both are women in England with long experience in waiting for the next letter, and fearing the next telegram.

Of course, everyday events are apt to become rather monotonous. . . . but if the daily horror might accumulate we should have such a fund of revulsion as would make the world cry ‘enough!’ So sometimes I wonder if it is a sacred duty after all ‘to paint the horrors’. This reminds me of a poem I’ll quote–by one of our moderns and a woman at that.

Another life holds what this lacks,
a sea, unmoving, quiet—
not forcing our strength
to rise to it, beat on beat—
a stretch of sand,
no garden beyond, strangling
with its myrrhlilies—
a hill not set with black violets
but stones, stones, bare rocks,
dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty
to distract—to crowd
madness upon madness.

Only a still place
and perhaps some outer horror
some hideousness to stamp beauty,
a mark
on our hearts.

H.D.

Perhaps the quotation has too much of the gesture about it–“See, I read women!”–but it’s not impossible to read it as whole sincere. This is a novel way of reaching out to Roff, across the gulf, and implying that she is to be considered an honorary combatant, able to understand something of its horror and not get hysterical about “a few paltry air raids.” And even if it is working hard to emphasize their connection, it’s not a bad quotation at all: the poem, with its horror and ruinscape and madness, is quite a good fit for the Salient in 1917. Which, I suppose, could be said of a lot of Modernist poetry, especially for those readers who might find the Christian framework of the old standby descriptions of Hell or the Slough of Despond off-putting…

In any event, Read is not just the impressively intellectual and in-touch boyfriend, here: he is also, to a surprising degree, given the emphasis on accumulating horrors, a happy warrior. This is not as uncommon a combination as we might think–Sassoon is the most obvious analogue, of course, but we might also remember gentle Roland Leighton‘s thirst for a decoration–and Read should, even in a somewhat preening letter, be given credit for facing up to the apparent contradiction.

War is horrible, but he’s enjoying himself; it’s more than can be borne, but he’s bearing it quite well:

My military progress continues… I  am now commanding a company… I thoroughly enjoy my despotism… I have got a fine lot of lads though they are fastly decreasing in numbers… they are a gallant crew: we have more decorations in our company than in any other in the battalion. I got four Military Medals today out of seven for the battalion. And damn proud of it we all are…

My subalterns (notice the ‘my’–sort of possessive pride) are quite a good lot…

The day grows long, so instead of transcribing the characters-of-the-company piece which closes the letter, I will merely summarize his band of brothers. They are much what we would expect: the quiet old guy of thirty or so; the sturdy, pretty-eyed optimist; the boastful but efficient sportsman; and, most promising, the “young rake of the cockney variety”…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 226-7.
  2. But not as much as Sassoon remembers it to be, since he seems to confuse/conflate two memories, including aspects of their next evening out in this description, or vice versa...
  3. Collected Letters, 503.
  4. Siegfried’s Journey, 64-65. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 278-9. The unfortunate author was one Aylmer Strong; Sassoon presented Owen with the volume.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 112-14.

Rowland Feilding on Sniping and Humor; Wilfred Owen’s Sunday Out

A quiet day of it, today, with just two brief updates. First, Rowland Feilding reports to his wife on the war of attrition in a quiet sector of the Somme.

My young sniping officer tells me he had a shot this morning, but his would-be victim signalled a “miss,” raising and lowering a stick above the parapet. I have known them do this before with a shovel. Our enemy evidently has some humour in spite of what people say.

A dark and deadly sort of humor, and one clearly common among the front fighters of both sides, if not yet among their civilian populations. It’s almost, though, as if any lighter subject turns Feilding’s next thought home, where truly modern warfare–a return of something akin to “total warfare,” largely absent from Europe for centuries–is advancing all the time.

Life in London must be getting more and more deadly. I fear it is becoming daily, more and more, a struggle for existence. I hope you do not have to stand in the queues to get your sugar and tea, and I pray that you are not starving yourself.[1]

He also prays, surely, that the Zeppelins and the Gothas do not get her.

 

And for Wilfred Owen, life goes on–despite the ominous significance of his return to health, and despite his new status as a friend of not only Siegfried Sassoon but also Robert Graves. His latest letter to his mother has nothing whatsoever to do with them–or with poetry–really, but since it is a light day I’ll include the whole of the day’s description. This is a young man’s letter with rather too much in the way of fine phrasing (as Sassoon writes of Owen, somewhere)–but it shows Owen touchingly happy. He’s enjoying himself among his now-numerous local friends, with no thoughts of the trenches, either those behind or those ahead.

Sunday, 21 October 1917 Craiglockhart

My dearest Mother,

It was a puzzle and a mystery to many, the party of six that assembled this afternoon at the Braid Hills Tram Terminus, and began a saunter into the Pentland Hills. People saw a married lady, an obviously unmarried young man in a reckless soft-cap, a well-dressed boy with violet eyes and tie, (wonder where his mother learnt that?) an ill-dressed thin boy, with an intellect behind his parchment forehead; a fat little knave apparently with a large apple stowed under each cheek in case of emergency; and a tall awkward boy, very nervous of himself. What spirit drove us together? The spirit of Stevenson it was; and he was with us at his gayest all the time.

He caused the finest wind the Pentlands can produce to come and play with us; and October spared us the last of her sun-remnants. When we beheld the Cottage to good advantage, we sat in the lee of a haystack and ate sandwiches. We then sang songs, and told tales, every now and then leaping about and prancing for joy.

It was already darkening when we reached Colinton and had tea, and quite dark when we took the Edinburgh road; and so we took it in good style with songs and dancing, whistling and holloing. Until the meteors showered in heaven; and we fell calm under the winter stars, and some of us saw the pale pathway of the Spirits for the first time.

And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so firm beneath us, we worshipped God in our hearts; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

That was my way of spending Sunday.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 217.
  2. Collected Letters, 502.

E.A. Mackintosh to Sylvia, Diana Manners to Duff, Olaf Stapledon to Agnes

We have a strange trio, today: three pieces each addressed to objects of affection, but otherwise most unlike each other in both form and content.

We don’t hear from E.A. Mackintosh all that often, and he has been for many months now living a quiet life training cadets in Cambridge. But today, a century back, he bridges recent poems we’ve seen from Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon, writing of–and to–a young woman he met in Cambridge, and also of the dead men he left behind.

 

To Sylvia

Two months ago the skies were blue,
The fields were fresh and green,
And green the willow tree stood up,
With the lazy stream between.Two months ago we sat and watched
The river drifting by–
And now—you’re back at your work again
And here in a ditch I lie.

God knows—my dear—I did not want
To rise and leave you so,
But the dead men’s hands were beckoning
And I knew that I must go.

The dead men’s eyes were watching, lass,
Their lips were asking too,
We faced it out and payed the price–
Are we betrayed by you?

The days are long between, dear lass,
Before we meet again,
Long days of mud and work for me,
For you long care and pain.

But you’ll forgive me yet, my dear,
Because of what you know,
I can look my dead friends in the face
As I couldn’t two months ago.

October 20th, 1917

There are plenty of poetic contexts in which the dead speak–the ancient epics would be incomplete without their ghost scenes, and Paul Fussell reminds us that Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance anticipated this sort of war writing with many poems in which the dead pose ironic questions of the living–but this is still uncannily close to Sassoon’s most recent poem. It’s a literary device, sure, but it’s also something like a collective hallucination–a repressed, British, literary version of trauma-induced mass hysteria. I overstate for effect, of course, but after all, so do the poems: neither Mackintosh nor Sassoon are literally hearing voices, but they dwell on the thoughts of dead men, and seem compelled to write about them, and to be drawn back to danger by an impossible wish for fellowship with the dead.

 

Diana Manners is also thinking of dead men, and of another man who is not far now from going out and discovering “Death’s plans.” She writes to Duff Cooper, still training in England:

Arlington Street 20 October

I am so sad about poor “Lucky Pixley” and for the first time in my life a little remorseful that I wasn’t nicer and didn’t come up from Chirk two days earlier though he begged me to. If only one happened to know Death’s plans…

For the time being she will simply have to continue defying them by demonstrating sang froid during air raid warnings:

Last night just as I was starting for Edwin and Alan’s farewell (they leave tomorrow for India) and Maud Cunard was in the hall to fetch me, the raid warning was given. Till 9.30 I argued with Her Grace. I had no case save that the guns had not begun — a poor one for they didn’t begin even when Piccadilly Circus was demolished and a knot of the proletariat killed, not even when the élite, represented by General Lowther, had his hat blown off.

Amusing–as she intends it to be. But Manners drops any mask in the next bit of the letter, writing openly of the grim psychological state of two of their mutual friends.

I got away in the end and found myself between Alan and Edwin, the latter divine, in the mood of the doomed, speaking bravely enough of his thankfulness for two Heaven-given years with his wife, of his reliance on me to look after her widowhood, and of several significant omens that signalled his approaching death. His fear has been quelled by complete resignation. Alan was little better — ashy-white with an unshakeable belief that he would be left to die at Aden. . . . After dinner I talked to Winston a great deal about you.[1]

 

Finally, today, a sort of frozen omen, in the shape of a very different letter-from-a-fiancé. Olaf Stapledon, separated from her by half the world, will not know for weeks that his beloved Agnes has been writing letters that hint at growing despair that their long engagement will ever come to anything. Olaf, all unknowing, writes to her of the earnest educational activities he is undertaking whenever his ambulance work allows him free time.

SSA 13
20 October 1917

. . . I am busy at present, what with the ordinary run of work plus various educational enterprises on the convoy, plus a sudden keen literary fever, plus the building of a new shell-proof dugout (great fun) plus a football match this afternoon, plus a car that has got some indeterminable disease that gives me a lot of trouble. The educational enterprises are Tindle’s occasional essays (the last on “Past & Present”), & a small industrial history class consisting of “Sparrow,” the quaint old bird, “Gertie,” the second cook and formerly a printer, and one Evans, a rather pharisaical but genial young journalist who was once second cook but is now our orderly. That little class is great fun. We talk about the Roman bath, the British village and the Saxon homestead, from which you may gather that we have only just begun. I draw wildly inaccurate maps & charts for them, and illustrate with sketches of ancient British coins etc., and they comment, question, and are made to expound what they have read; also they write essays & we criticise them all together…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Autobiography, 158.
  2. Talking Across the World, 253.